At first it seemed the Israel Defense Forces wasn't too keen on enlisting the recent immigrant from America. At 24 she was much older than most other recruits, and the army bureaucrats told her they didn't know Latin, forcing her to get certified translations of her university diploma, first into English and then into Hebrew. Today, three and half years later, first lieutenant Aliza Landes holds what is one of the IDF's increasingly important positions. As head of the new media desk at the spokesperson's office, the now 27-year-old plays a crucial role in Israel's ongoing struggle to present its point of view to the public.
"I'm a huge believer in making information available to people, as much information as possible," Landes told Anglo File this week in her Jerusalem office. The young officer started her service at the North American desk of the spokesperson's foreign press branch, where she saw how much information was available but not accessible for millions of non-journalists.
In addition to her regular duties, she made it her business to send material to what she says was the previously neglected community of bloggers. "I think they're an up and coming class of information disseminators and opinion-makers, and so I was a very strong advocate of providing them with the same basic information we provide journalists with," says Landes, the daughter of renowned U.S. historian and pro-Israel advocate Richard Landes.
The California native says she initiated the launch of an IDF blog, Twitter account and YouTube channel, in concert with other soldiers. As of yesterday, YouTube ranked the IDF channel, which has 31,960 subscribers, as its 15th most popular in the world this month. "The army had a website when I arrived but they still weren't active on any sort of online platforms," recalls Landes, who had noted the rapidly increasing importance of new media while studying political science and Middle Eastern studies at Montreal's McGill University.
She says the importance of the IDF's PR machine became especially clear after the May 31 flotilla incident, when TV audiences around the world learned of the capture of the six Gaza-bound ships and the killing of nine activists aboard the Mavi Marmara. It took the army's spokesperson about 10 hours to release footage showing soldiers being attacked. These hours without visual evidence for Israel's version of the story caused the world to regard Israel as the sole aggressor, many local pundits complained.
"There was a lot of criticism and I can completely understand why the public felt that way," Landes says. "I also understand that they don't see it from the inside perspective." She uploaded the clips from the boat around 5:30 P.M., the moment the army's higher-ups gave her green light, says Landes, who has four soldiers under her command. "What I don't think people appreciate is the logistics that are involved in getting material out," she adds. "You can't really expect us to send out a helicopter just to get footage in the middle of an operation. Operational considerations come first, always." She adds the time lag was an improvement over Operation Cast Lead a year and a half ago.
While pro-Israel activists bewailed another PR disaster, others felt the IDF succeeded in presenting its position quickly and powerfully. The London-based Independent, for example, wrote that "Israel moved with impressive efficiency according to the American political maxim about media rebuttal and counterattack: speed kills." One foreign correspondent told Anglo File Landes did a "very good job" of presenting Israel's point of view after the incident. "What she does is obviously spin, but that's what she was hired to do. And she does it very professionally."
Tel Aviv-based freelance journalist Lisa Goldman says the army achieved its goal in "controlling the narrative" of the flotilla episode. Foreign correspondents and bloggers, however, "were not impressed," the Canada native adds. "I think [the IDF] did it in a way that came across, to many bloggers, as being extremely manipulative." Not enough footage was released from a five-hour-raid taking place on a four-story boat, Goldman contends. "That begs the question of what happened before and after and what's the real story. What are they trying to hide? That's what a lot of bloggers were asking."
Landes responds that it's "a sign of success" that people are aware of her YouTube channel and get upset when material isn't there. "I think it's good that the public has these kinds of expectations. So when I see all this criticism I take it as a challenge to try to do better in the future."